5 Best Intimate Bars – 2017 Platinum List (Celebrated Living/American Airlines)
French 75, 28 HongKong Street, Dante, The Dead Rabbit, Employees Only
New Orleans, Louisiana
When award-winning chef Nina Compton isn’t thrilling palates at her restaurant, Compère Lapin, she pops into this New Orleans institution for a classic cocktail
After Top Chef, people had preconceived notions of what I’d be like, and you can’t play that down,” says Season 11 runner-up Nina Compton. “Chefs have to put on a TV personality sometimes because it’s what people expect.” And therein lies the irony. Inside her award-winning restaurant, Compère Lapin in New Orleans, Compton is genuinely warm, sincere and gentle. Her on-air personality was, well, basically identical. Even after landing a James Beard Foundation Best Chef: South finalist spot, being honored as a Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef: 2017, and Compère Lapin garnering The Times-Picayune’s first-ever Restaurant of the Year—coveted accolades most Top Chefalums rarely see—Nina is just Nina, whether cameras roll or not. With her St. Lucian lilt and kind eyes, she’s the same as she was on television, and her first restaurant has similarly defied expectations.
“Caribbean food is something you don’t see often,” she says. “There’s jerk chicken, and that’s pretty much it. I decided I could take Compère Lapin to a different level.” In particular, her goat curry has become her signature dish—such a bestseller they now order up to six goats a week (bumped up from one when they initially opened). It’s heavy on comfort without frills, the way New Orleanians like their food. “Food is trendy, and it shouldn’t be,” she says. “Food should be food. It’s culture, it’s what brings people together, and people here like to eat.”
While she spends most of her time in the kitchen, it’s not unusual to spot her at Arnaud’s French 75, this year’s JBF award winner for Outstanding Bar Program. “You walk in and it’s like you’re in this beautiful time warp. There are these little monkey lamps as fixtures, and it has this cool, eclectic New Orleans feel,” she says. “French 75 is a little nook of great cocktails and great atmosphere. You’re in the French Quarter, but it seems as if you’re tucked away in a little street in Paris.” What does she order there? “I enjoy gin and Scotch, but I tell [head bartender] Chris Hannah to just surprise me. He will ask me what I’m in the mood for. Sometimes I’ll just pop in for the French 75, an amazing drink with Champagne and cognac.”
28 HongKong Street
Hong Kong, China
The groundbreaking lounge has made Singapore a player on the global cocktail scene
It would be easy to miss the unassuming brown-and-white sliding doors, situated on a fairly low-key stretch of Singapore’s Hongkong Street. Yet behind this plain façade you will find one of the most talked-about cocktail bars in Asia: 28 HongKong Street, a.k.a. 28HKS.
Now in its sixth year, 28HKS clinched top spot on the inaugural Asia’s 50 Best Bars list last year, and it did so in part by forgoing the razzmatazz commonly associated with the Lion City—the bar’s décor is wood-and-leather traditional, and the cocktail menu stresses quality over novelty.
“Our drinks don’t scream experimental,” says Czech bartender Zdenek Kastanek, who joined 28HKS as a “spirit evangelist” in 2013 and now maintains a residency there. “We aren’t in-your-face when it comes to flavors and techniques. Instead, we pride ourselves on using top-notch ingredients to create classics with a twist. It’s about creating a harmony of flavors.”
This approach has put 28HKS—and Singapore—on the global cocktail map.
“We definitely helped shape Singapore’s cocktail scene by bringing the whole idea of fine drinking into the country,” Kastanek says. “Five years ago, you wouldn’t find Singapore bars making it to the finals of cocktail competitions, or winning industry awards. It’s now the other way around—there are no awards without Singapore being on the list.”
28HKS has also been a catalyst for change on a more local level. “When we started out, we were the only food and beverage establishment on Hongkong Street,” Kastanek says. “Around us were shops selling dried shrimp, nutmeg and cloves.” And now? “It’s buzzing and fun. We don’t see the other establishments here as competition at all. In fact, the street is an integral part of our identity.”
Indeed, the idea of community is key to the bar’s ethos. “28HKS is like a clubhouse for friends and family,” Kastanek says. “If you’ve been here before and come in again, you’ll almost feel like you’re home. We’re a one-off—we will only ever be located on Hongkong Street.”
New York City
Since 1915 this space has been a haven for artists and writers from Ernest Hemingway and Anaïs Nin to Bob Dylan. Today, the Greenwich Village landmark blends history with superior cocktails, becoming a cozy sanctuary from city life.
The Dead Rabbit
New York City
A 21st-century iteration of a classic pub, this Downtown hotspot serves an award-winning menu of memorable elixirs. The True Blue—Irish whiskey, apple brandy and Guinness—is a popular choice to wash down Scotch eggs or fish and chips.
Miami Beach, FL
Take a hip New York bar, place it in a historic Miami coral house, and you have a recipe for a scene-filled South Beach lounge. This Prohibition-inspired space features savory bites—try the bone marrow poppers—and specialty cocktails.
This story was originally published in American Way Magazine.